Category Archives: Uncategorized

Invoking Jesus to Defend Racial Insensitivity? Please!

Creche

Of all the defenses of Congressman Steve Scalise (R-La.), the new House majority whip, in the wake of revelations that he spoke at a gathering of white supremacists in 2002, I find Congressman Steve King’s (R-Iowa), reported in today’s Washington Post, the most outrageous:

“Jesus dined with tax collectors and sinners,” King said. “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor, it’s the sick. Given that piece of Scripture, and understanding that Scalise probably wasn’t staffed thoroughly, I could understand how something like this happened. But I know his heart, I’ve painted houses with him post-Katrina, and I know he is a good man.”

I’m sorry, Congressman King, but you can’t have it both ways. Continue reading Invoking Jesus to Defend Racial Insensitivity? Please!

An Open Letter to Working Class Conservatives

Dear Fellow Americans,

You love this country. You’re frustrated. I love this country. I am frustrated. We share that, if little else.

Though my political beliefs are distinctly different from yours, we both want the same thing: a country in which the American Dream is still possible for us and for our children. We have been taught—and we are teaching our own children—that we live in a place where dedication and hard work result in success and financial stability. Yet we both see that slipping away, and we take turns being angry with our leaders, particularly those in the opposing party, when Congress makes decisions that affect the people we care about. Continue reading An Open Letter to Working Class Conservatives

Are Truth and Love Stronger than Race?

King Quotation

Inscription on the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial

Our nation is lining up on either side of a fault line that threatens to shake the foundations of our nation. I can’t help fearing that the Big One is coming—the racial earthquake that could destroy us. I’m frightened for our future. I’m frightened for our children. But I also have hope. Continue reading Are Truth and Love Stronger than Race?

Missing Mom?

Mom's Crocheting

Mom’s Beautiful, Crocheted Gifts to Me

I remember the first time I really missed my mother.  A freshman in college, I had the flu.  My roommate moved down the hall to a room that was unoccupied after another freshman fled for home earlier in the semester.  The dorm’s resident assistant came to the door to ask if I needed anything but spoke to me from across the room, reluctant to breathe in the air of a sick room.

I longed for my mother’s soothing hand stroking my hair, for the damp washcloth she always folded in thirds until it was just the right size for my fevered forehead.  Instead, I lay on the clammy sheets and pulled the blanket up over my own shoulder in a gesture that couldn’t possibly emulate the way my mother had tucked me in when I was sick.

Gleeful at being free from a mother I viewed as a sad martyr, I had packed my things and scurried away from her arms two months before.  She had done such a good job of stressing to me that I should be sure to get an education and have a life different from hers that I saw nothing in her life that I wanted to emulate.

To me, Mom seemed a slave to her children and her husband.  She spent her day cleaning a tiny house inhabited by seven people.  She did laundry nearly every day, and I came home from school to see her standing behind an ironing board with a heavy black and silver iron in hand.  Or I found her crocheting, indulging in her one pleasurable hobby as she watched soap operas, her hands working swiftly with scarcely a look down.

I muttered a greeting and hurried past her to my bedroom, dropping my textbooks and picking up a novel.  I escaped to a world of classics where characters like Pip and Jane Eyre were lucky enough to escape lives like mine and my mother’s.

When I had left for college, I found nothing in my mother’s home to miss.  But in that moment of illness, as I lay on my bed, I knew that my mother was the single person in my world who loved me enough to risk her health to enfold me in her arms.  And over the years of my young adulthood, she became the first person I wanted to call when something made me sad or joyful or triumphant.  I knew I could count on her comfort, her pride, her love.

It would be many more years before I saw my mother as a person in her own right—separate from husband or children or home.  Once her five children were grown, she went back to class and earned a GED, she learned to drive and bought her first car, she got her first job outside the home as a clerk in a department store.  And I remember feeling a little insulted when she chattered enthusiastically about how much she enjoyed the job, gesturing animatedly in a way I’d never heard her talk about her work as a housewife and mother.

In those years, too, she made her first friend who wasn’t a relative or a neighbor.  My dad complained to me about how Mom and Karen “kept the roads hot” while he continued to work in the coal mines during those years before he retired.

I belly-laughed when Mom told me the story of a shopping excursion with the woman who became her best friend.  The nearest mall was an hour away from my hometown, and Mom and Karen had left early in the morning on a day when snow was forecast for the harrowing Bolt Mountain, over which they would have to travel.

My mom told the story this way:  Karen dropped her off at home, and she entered the front door, weighed down by shopping bags full of Christmas gifts, to find Dad fuming in his favorite recliner by the door.  Dad made no move to help Mom with the packages.  She would find out later that he had called Karen’s husband, worried that they might have had an accident in the snow on the mountain.  But he wasn’t about to admit to fearing for her safety.  His only comment, Mom told me with a laugh, was to say, “Thirteen hours!  You all have been gone thirteen hours!  How in the hell could you shop for thirteen hours?”

The mom I knew in my childhood would have cowered in the face of Dad’s anger.  But she laughed as Karen came in behind her with more packages and said, “Oh, Roy, get over it.”

I had completely forgotten that story until Karen reminded me as we mourned the loss of my mother together.  Karen, who became a Presbyterian lay pastor after my mother moved away to be nearer to her children, officiated my mother’s memorial service.  But more than that, Karen told me stories that reminded me that my mother enjoyed her life after children.

Even now, I see my mother through the haze of my own need and loss.  I’m not sure it’s even possible to see her in any other way.  But I do love hearing the stories of those who knew her as Naomi Prichard Williamson—a woman of strength and spunk and humor.  And I’ll miss both Mom and the Naomi I only glimpsed more than I can possibly say.

So tell me your stories* of your own mother—your mom and the woman you see through a glass darkly.

*Add your stories by clicking on the Add Comment button below this blog on the main blog page.

Live in a Stressful State?

Hawaii

Standing on a promontory in Hawaii above an ocean of cobalt blue, I knew that I had seen the best of two worlds.  Born in the heart of the West Virginia hills, I’d grown up surrounded by trees of nearly every shade of green on the color wheel, but I didn’t see the ocean until I was 24.  And I’d never seen an ocean like the one I saw 30 years later from a precipitous cliff in Kauai.

The island weather had been colder than we’d expected, but my husband and I donned our swimsuits that morning and covered them with layers and jackets.  This was nothing I hadn’t done countless times during my childhood in West Virginia, where the chilly mornings slowly gave way to the warmth of the sun.  Undaunted by the absence of tropical breezes, we eagerly followed our friends across the rocky terrain to what they assured us would be a breathtaking view.

When we arrived at the peak, my eyes didn’t know where to look first.  The ocean stretched to the horizon, broken by clusters of lava rock that punctuated the landscape, allowing me to take a breath before my eyes read on.  Though we stood high above the surface, the waves crashed against the rocks, spraying us with water as I backed away, holding my breath.

Again I thought of West Virginia.  I’d taken the beauty of my surroundings for granted for most of my childhood, until I visited Spruce Knob, the highest point in the state.  I remembered holding my breath and backing up from the overlook in the same way—the first time I really became aware that great beauty and great danger are sometimes separated by the tiniest of invisible lines.  The towering pines were bare on one side, stripped by the force of the constant wind.  In that moment, I’d felt just as I felt on that cliff in Hawaii—that I might be small and insignificant but that the God I believed in was small enough to fit inside me and big enough to create a world of awe-inspiring places.

I thought of those moments again when I read the morning news today and learned that this year’s Gallup survey results show that the least stressed people in the country live in Hawaii.  No surprise there.  But I was surprised to learn that the most stressed people in the country are the residents of West Virginia.  I was so surprised that, as I sometimes do, I checked the original source.  I wasn’t disbelieving, as I usually am when I turn to a primary source, but I wanted to read the original report without the spin of journalists.

Because I’m skeptical of surveys, which are often designed to get the results the sponsor wants, I read about the design of the survey.  I was impressed to learn that Gallup, unlike many other companies, had used both landlines and cell phones, though the balance was a bit in favor of landlines—400 cell calls for every 600 landline contacts.  And they also made an effort to find respondents who were diverse in age, gender, ethnicity, and education.

Satisfied that the survey seemed credible, I read the summary and discovered that Hawaii has ranked as the least stressed state every year for the past five years and that West Virginia has consistently been ranked in the five most stressful states.  As one might expect, there was a strong correlation to the rate of employment—more stress in states with higher unemployment.

But when I checked the Bureau of Labor Statistics web site, I found that the unemployment rate in West Virginia for 2012 ranked only 23rd of the 50 states.  So what explains that the people in a state filled with beautiful, peaceful places to calm the soul would feel so much more stress than people elsewhere?

Perhaps it’s easier for the people of Hawaii to disregard the troubles that plague the mainland.  After all, it takes six hours by plane to get to the turmoil on the continental U.S., and one can always turn off the television when the sadness creeps across the airwaves to paradise. And while those of us on the mainland could choose to do the same, we tend to be bombarded by images that accost us even when we turn off our televisions.  As children during the ‘60s and ‘70s, my classmates and I saw the news only for an hour each evening, and the turmoil of those years didn’t seem as close as every conflict seems now.

I wonder, too, how faith figures into the equation.  We know from other surveys that having a strong faith helps people live longer, more abundant lives.  But I also have many friends in my home state who are traumatized by a faith that makes no room for questioning a God they’ve been taught offers more vengeance than comfort.  And when I read the results of the Pew Forum’s research last year which shows that young adults are leaving churches in droves, I have to wonder how many people are struggling because they were taught that if their prayers aren’t being answered it’s because they don’t have enough faith or aren’t “right with God.”

Each time I scan the Charleston and Beckley papers online from my home state, I read articles that reflect how little control most of the people in the state have over their economic well-being.  The coal and gas companies, in an attempt to preserve the riches they’ve reaped from the state, convince the masses that sustainable energy is a threat to their way of life.  The last time I drove into the county where I lived as a young adult, I was greeted by a hate-filled billboard denigrating the president and urging everyone to be a “friend of coal.”

At that moment I thought of those trees on Spruce Knob and wished I had enough money and know-how to fund clean energy businesses—perhaps windmills—to replace the strip mines that surround the cemetery where my father is buried.

Stress and depression, as a good therapist once told me, come from feeling that we have no control.  “All of us have choices,” he told me, “so look at your life and take control over what you can.”  And he’s right.  So my prayer for my home state is that they will somehow find a way to break free of those who chain them to a style of life where others get rich from the burdens they carry.

So how is your state of stress?

Are Our Views Changing?

Oceana Park

The small town where I grew up was—and still is—an anomaly, even in the surrounding county.  Though not everyone looked the same, everyone looked the same.  Some of us had blonde hair and blue eyes, some brown hair and green eyes, some black hair and brown eyes.  But all of us shared the same small range of skin tones, and at the time I graduated from the local high school, not a single African-American had ever attended the school.

The nearest Catholic church is still twelve miles away, in a town that also has some African-American residents.  The nearest synagogue is over 30 miles away.  White and Protestant throughout my childhood, my hometown remains so to the present day.  And yet that town has the same issues that face the rest of the country—unemployment, poverty, and drug addiction that is so pervasive it has become the subject of a documentary chosen to premiere at next month’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

In the absence of an intimate relationship with someone who is different, human beings tend to form their opinions by falling back on stereotypes.  As an avid reader in high school, I glimpsed characters whose lives were very different from my own.  I watched the Civil Rights Movement unfold on our television screen, but it seemed far removed from my own life in an all-white town.  And only as an adult did I learn that some of my childhood classmates were gay and lesbian.  That, too, seemed far away.  Though I grew up in evangelical churches, no minister ever felt the need to preach a sermon aimed at homosexuals because no one ever openly acknowledged a sexuality that didn’t conform to the social norms of the community.

This week the United States Supreme Court will take on the issue of same-sex marriage.  Journalists and commentators have speculated for months on the outcome of the justices’ deliberations, and while they disagree about how the justices may rule, they seem almost unanimous on one thing: Americans’ views on this issue are changing.

Just last week Rob Portman, a Republican congressman from Ohio, announced that he had changed his mind and now supports same-sex marriage.  Why?  Like a host of politicians before him, his views are changing because someone he knows and loves—his son—is gay.  It is impossible to hold fast to stereotypes when we know someone intimately who defies that stereotype.

Whatever the Supreme Court’s decision, it will not change the hearts and minds of people who make judgments from a distance—those who know not a single friend or family member who is homosexual.  We know this from history.  Giving women the right to vote and hold office did not lead to a flood of women elected to public office.  Granting African-Americans civil rights did not lead blacks and whites to live in the same neighborhoods or to come together in our houses of worship.  Granting citizenship to immigrants has not led us to understand that a person who is Muslim or Hindi has the common bond of humanity with us.

So even if the Supreme Court rules fully in favor of same-sex marriage, we still have a long way to go as humans living in concord and understanding with other human beings.

Since I left that small town to encounter people who have a wider range of differences than my hair and eye color, I’ve found that my life has been enriched almost every time I’ve been open to the colorfully diverse human beings around me.  Yes, sometimes they disappoint me by being very like the stereotypes.  But far more often, when I get past the surface of our differences, I’ve found something of myself in almost every person I’ve met.

Human that I am, I sometimes latch on to my first impression—not so much on appearances, but on the tone and color of the words that come out of a new acquaintance’s mouth.  I’m far more apt to judge that I don’t want to get to know someone whose views, rather than skin color, land far afield from my own.

And even then, when I don’t shut the door and pull down the shade of my mind before looking more deeply, I sometimes find that hearing others’ life stories can make a difference.  I don’t always connect in a way that makes me want to call that person a friend, and at times I still feel I have to oppose that person’s views in order to be true to my own conscience and sense of justice.

But I believe that if anything can make us live together in peace and come together to tackle the issues that face all of us, it is the power of personal narrative.  So invite us now to sit at your feet and hear your story.

Deceived?

GPC

It had to happen.  I knew it would.  But knowing on an intellectual level didn’t prepare me for it emotionally.

Yesterday, a childhood friend who grew up with me in fanatically evangelical churches told me that I was being “deceived by the devil”—that because I don’t read the Bible literally, my soul is in danger.  This wouldn’t have been surprising—but for the fact that she majored in a science-related field in college and spent her whole career in a lab and her personal life in a home with someone of the same sex.

And though I believe with all my heart that God is full of grace, “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” as the psalmist sings, it took me hours to remind myself after my conversation with her that when I commune with the Spirit, I feel no trace of that ugly and vengeful God that some of my childhood friends believe in so fervently.

This friend told me that she believes that we’re “living in the end times.”  She said that St. Malachy—though she seemed confused about the connection or lack of one between the Irish saint and the Old Testament Malachi—had accurately predicted the popes up to now and that, if the pope who is named at the end of the month takes the name Peter, he will fulfill the prophecy and be the last pope, who will rule over the end of the world.  She says the list he predicted is locked up somewhere in the Vatican, and when I asked how, then, anyone knows whether the names on the list match the names since the time of Malachy, she couldn’t give me an answer.

I had never heard this theory, though when I did a web search, I discovered that she is by no means the only one who believes she knows with some degree of accuracy when the world will end.  As I listened, I felt I had entered the Twilight Zone.  The last time I saw this friend, more than 20 years ago, she seemed balanced and reasonable.  But yesterday, this woman who has lived with a partner who she now swears is only a companion told me that she believes unequivocally that homosexuality is an abomination. And when I asked whether she believed the Old Testament command to stone a woman for adultery was acceptable, her answer was, “In some parts of the world, they still stone women.”  By this point in the conversation, I was so exhausted that I didn’t have the strength to ask, “Yeah, but are you saying that’s okay?”

Most of my friends have laughed dismissively today when I’ve told this story.  “Crazy!” most of them say—not worth a single moment of thought.

But I still find my friend’s lack of logic scary.  And what I find even more scary is that almost all the educated, reasonable people I know label people like her as crazy and refuse to take them seriously enough to challenge them.  They have their right to religious freedom, we think, and so we allow them to perpetuate these beliefs and to strong-arm their children and their loved ones into adhering to their rigid biblical interpretation of the world.

And friends who are more conservative than I, but still logical and thinking people, tell me that people like my friend are stock-piling weapons and artillery for the battle they believe is coming.  Yet still we liberals try to respect their freedom of religion and their right to bear arms.  And I worry that this must be the same way reasonable people in Salem regarded the witch-hunters, the way reasonable people in the North regarded Southern slave-owners who swore that the Bible justified slavery, the way reasonable people in Germany regarded Hitler, the way reasonable people in the Middle East regarded the Taliban.

So how do we uphold the values on which our nation was founded but resist the rigidity that leads to intolerance and oppression?  How do we follow the example of Christ—who wasn’t afraid to question the religious people of his time who thought they knew the mind of God?

How do we respectfully challenge religious people who purport to have all the answers?  My friend may be too far gone to hear anyone who doesn’t confirm her narrow view of God.  But how do we speak to those who are where she was 20 years ago, when she was willing to hear reason from those who disagreed?  How do we fight for a future where freedom of religion means freedom from being labeled as an agent of evil?

The Christianity of Christ

Douglass Bible

Courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Douglass Bible

On Friday we earthlings had a crashing reminder of how little of the universe we can actually control when a meteorite, estimated to be about 50 feet in diameter, slammed into a sparsely populated area of Russia.  For the first time in history, the event was captured in a multitude of videos and posted on the Internet almost immediately.

All weekend the news outlets have swirled with explanations and comparisons to past meteor hits.  The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History reported a significant uptick in the number of people visiting to view the meteorite collection.  Geologists interviewed on weekend news shows championed the importance of government funding for the study of minerals embedded in meteorites—most too small to catch the attention of anyone other than scientists.

Of course, attention also turned to the biggest rock of all—the six-mile wide asteroid that left a 150-mile crater off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago.  According to a PBS report—and most scientific studies—that unexpected chunk of space junk produced so much dust that it darkened and chilled the earth.  And when the dust settled, the greenhouse gases produced by the impact caused temperatures to sky-rocket, and the two extremes killed 70% of Earth’s plant and animal life.

At the same time that the tiny piece of rock created chaos in Russia, scientists also had their eye on another much bigger asteroid passing within 17,000 miles of Earth.  And every news outlet acknowledged that, as powerful as we human beings are, should such an event happen today, we could do nothing to stop it, just as the dinosaurs could do nothing to prevent their extinction.

Now for a worrier like me, all this hoopla could have shifted my anxiety into high gear—enough to send me over an emotional cliff.  This time, though, the event coincided with Lent, when I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what the crucifixion means for me in this life and the next. Born into an extended family of evangelicals who filled my mind with the horror of a fiery hell, I was taught that my only measure of control was complete surrender to a God of angry vengeance.

As an adult, I’ve chosen a faith that focuses more on God’s grace.  But it’s taken me a lifetime to put away the fear and anxiety of having so little control.  And now I understand that, for me, focusing so much on the afterlife robs me of the now-life—a sometimes harrowing but mostly joyful journey through an astonishing world.

Writers have been telling us this since the advent of the printed word. Harper Lee’s Miss Maudie described in To Kill a Mockingbird a group of Christians who are so preoccupied with the next world that they’ve forgotten how to live in the present world.  Emily Dickinson wrote that immortality was “So huge, so hopeless to conceive [that] / Parting is all we know of heaven, / and all we need of hell.”

And so I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll try harder to leave the afterlife to God—that I’ll think about it less and make the most of the gift of this present life.  I can no more control how much time I get to have between this known life and that other unknown life than I can change the trajectory of an asteroid that may come crashing into our planet.

But as I focus on the meaning of Lent, the example Christ set for how to live in this world, I understand that I’ve been given a pretty good model.  He broke bread and drank wine with his friends.  He allowed himself the luxury of having his tired feet anointed with expensive oil, even though self-righteous people criticized him for it.  He never forgot the least among us—doing what he could in the time he was given to make a difference for someone in need.  And he found time away from the needy crowd to center himself and commune with the Spirit.

Not a bad example, is it?  Even if you don’t share my faith.  Even if you don’t believe in the afterlife.  Even if you worry about that meteor that might come crashing into the Earth.

So come walk beside me now.  Tell me your stories of the joy of this present journey.

Creation or Evolution?

Frog on Deck

Walking in the evening dusk last summer, my husband and I disturbed the play of three young boys when our dog, smelling something in the air, began to bark furiously.  Our sheltie tugged insistently on his leash, lunging toward a bucket on the ground that had captivated the boys’ attention until we interlopers showed up.

My husband put the dog into a sit-stay, and when the dog was calm again, we apologized to the boys.

The youngest, not quite old enough to be in school yet, reached into the bucket and pulled out something between his cupped hands.  “Look what we’ve got!” he exclaimed.

He opened his hands just a sliver, and my husband smiled.  “A smelly toad,” he teased.  “Better be careful.”

“Nuh-uh,” said one of the older boys.  “It’s a frog!”  He turned to his brother.  “Show him,” he commanded.

The Keeper of the Frog opened his hands a little more.  “See,” he said, “its back feet are webbed.  It’s a frog!”

“Impressive,” I said, smiling.  We would have stayed to hear more—we live in an adjoining neighborhood, an “active adult community” that has no children except for the occasional visiting grandchild who has no reason to come out in search of other children.

But the dog was beginning to twitch, so we apologized again for his bad behavior and bid the boys farewell, grinning as we turned back to our own community.

A few days later, I wandered onto our second-story deck with my morning coffee to join my husband, who generally gets up earlier than I do on weekends.  As I came out the door, he smiled at me and pointed to the corner of the deck, where a tiny creature sat near my pot of basil.

I leaned over and peered at him.  “How the heck did he get up here?” I asked my husband.

“I guess he climbed up the bricks,” he answered.

Remembering the boys, I asked, “He’s a frog, right?”

“A tree frog, I think,” my husband answered as I went back into the house to get the camera.  And since I’m a long way from elementary school science, I also did some research later that day to find that telling the difference between a frog and a toad is a little more complex than just checking for webbed feet, since some frogs don’t have webbed feet.  I also discovered that tree frogs actually have little suction cups on their feet that allow them to climb.

The little guy—or gal, since my investigation didn’t get that far—visited us several times last summer, and our guess is that it came in search of the water we poured over the basil—not a good sign for our ecosystem, we didn’t think, considering we live next to green space that borders a protected stream.

I promptly forgot our visitor until this week, when a friend of mine who is an atheist posted on social media a picture of Darwin with the caption, “We’ll let you teach creationism in our schools when you let us teach evolution in your churches.”

And it occurred to me yet again, in what each time seems an epiphany to me, that people on those either/or extremes forget that many, many, many of us occupy the space in the middle.  I’m a Christian.  I believe in evolution.  I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive.  And I don’t see any reason to teach the biblical story of creation in a science classroom.

I’m an English teacher.  I’ve read and taught the literature that we collectively refer to as “creation stories”—some of which we refer to as “creation myths.”  I understand that many religions of the world have gone the way of myth as science has explained that we don’t need a god to drive the chariot of the sun across the sky.  And as we come to a fuller understanding of our world, scientists and theologians continue to try to explain the mystery and the complexity of a world we will never fully understand.

For now, I choose to believe in a Father-Mother God big enough to create complex creatures that can evolve as the need arises—a God too big to be boxed in by people on either side who think they know with certainty how our world came into existence.  Why shouldn’t I believe in such a God?  Do any parents ever expect that the children they birth will stay as they are at that moment when their infants slip-slide their way into this beautiful, intricate world?

I know I’m not the only person in this world who believes that contradictions can coexist and that we can, in fact, celebrate those contradictions.

So, dance with me.  Let’s strike a chord against dissonance.  Sing to me in three-part harmony.  Tell me your stories of the in-between.